A Little Clutch of Deceit

The lapwing is back. In fact, I think there might be two of them living in that field behind the daycare down the road. I saw one takeoff and then another joined her in the sky. I can’t identify lapwings in flight, but the two birds looked very much alike. I can spot a gull, a duck, or an oystercatcher. And though I have never seen the nightingale that lives out that way, I know she is far too small to have been tussling like that in the air.

E. keeps challenging me when I say she, and asks me if I know for certain that the female is the one who broods. So I looked it up. He will be a bit too pleased to know that both sexes brood.

I also learned that I may have seen two males in flight. That they lay 4 eggs a year. And that a group of lapwings is called a deceit.

Sometimes I wonder if collecting useless facts is a form of hoarding. Controlling. Yesterday I listened to a podcast while I ran (the first time post-covid infection). I listened to Lulu Miller read her own brilliant essay titled The Eleventh Word [podcast ]. She explores the idea that our naming things actually creates an environment of fear: that by naming things, we create the illusion of control, but when that inevitably proves false we feel disoriented and afraid.

She gets this idea by observing her son as he acquires language and fear of the unknown at the same time. While I’m no neuroscientist, I think it’s more likely that the child’s brain develops the ability to predict and reason at the same age.

But the correlation here is fascinating and her argument poetic. There may even be some truth to her idea. I remember reading a long time about research that said there are emotions we don’t experience until we know a word for them. I remember it was all very controversial. But I suppose that would support the idea that we would be fearless without language?

I do know there are all kinds of research about using a second language, and the relative emotional/objective value of doing so. I have had students who keep diaries in English and tell me it is because they feel distanced from the difficult subject matter. It’s easier to think about it.

This is especially interesting because when I taught younger kids, I noticed that their “imaginative” language was English, though their day-to-day language was Norwegian. They would tell me that they were more creative in English: it was “easier”. They credited the language itself, not their relationship to it. I’ve always thought that was interesting. At first, I thought it was because they simply lacked the critical skills to evaluate their creative work. They felt freer because they felt an innocent sense of competence (invariably these kids were better at English than their parents and teachers, for example). But I think it is more than that.

How much does language create our reality? (And I am not talking about woo-woo manifesting of goals, etc.) How much permission do we give ourselves to name and claim and control? Or think we control.

Again, not a new thought at all. But it is exciting to wander around and land in a familiar field. At least in something that looks familiar.

3 Replies to “A Little Clutch of Deceit”

  1. I have a special fondness for the wild critters of my neighborhood. A brown rabbit, a silent coyote, raccoons, stray cats, one white butterfly. SO, old contrast, the naming of things, yea, language – necessary but inherently flawed. We do best we can. Ultimate translation is always inside ourselves. Like all things, carry it lightly.

  2. Ah, it always comes back to Plato’s Cratylus dialogue and Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device. Cratylus looks at the way in which we ascribe meaning to words, words that are abstract labels of something (does a word sound like the object it describes looks?), so a pencil could have been named a skunk if someone’s mind had worked some other way. And Chomsky’s LAD idea was all about kids being able to learn languages in an unencumbered way up until the age of 7 (kind of mirrors what Ignatius Loyola said about boys and men). I know that when I lived in Norway and spoke Norwegian, I didn’t feel like the English me, that there was this second person inside me talking and trying to express what the Ur-me was feeling. A very strange sensation, but sometimes to be out of ourselves is a very valuable way to be. Apols for this long comment – I must be in a very wordy phase this morning.

  3. Fascinating to think about the affect of language on our perceptions and vice versa. I am what I say I am? I see what I say I see? Rilke’s French poems seem more concrete than his German ones. There are fewer angels in them too…


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